“The Ship of Slavery”: Atlantic Slave Trade Suppression, Liberated Africans, and Black Abolition Politics in Antebellum New York

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 2:50 PM
Manchester Ballroom F (Hyatt)
Sharla M. Fett , Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA
Although transatlantic networks and travel have received considerable attention among scholars of free Black activism, the influence of slave trade suppression on northern African American political culture has not been fully examined.  This paper explores how Black abolitionists in the late antebellum period engaged the issue of Atlantic slave trade suppression and the liberation of Africans from condemned slave ships as part of their larger vision of Atlantic emancipations.   New York in the 1850s served as both a departure point for covert slavers as well as a major financing center for the illegal trade from Africa to Cuba.  The focus on slavery suppression intensified in 1860, when the Navy liberated 1,400 Africans from three slavers, taking them into U.S. custody in Florida prior to resettlement in Liberia. Addressing the flurry of press coverage on the “recaptive” Africans, Presbyterian minister and former slave James W.C. Pennington critiqued the colonization of liberated Africans and the failure of the United States to enforce its Atlantic slave trade laws.  The illegal slave trade became an issue through which Pennington and other free African Americans connected local and diasporic struggles.  Most importantly, the status of liberated Africans, in limbo between Africa and the Americas, between enslavement and emancipation, generated a broader debate on emigration, colonization and West Indian apprenticeship with reference points throughout the Atlantic Basin.  For Pennington, these debates gained immediacy through his involvement with the earlier Amistad Africans and three liberated African boys in NY in 1860. The writing and speeches of Pennington, as well as the content of the Weekly Anglo-African and other New York newspapers, reveal how, amidst much passion and considerable disagreement, Black activists sought to remake the paths of slavery into paths towards free Black labor and citizenship.